Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Everest Exploits Part Seven: It's All Downhill From Here

Today's going to be a big one - all the way from Dingboche to Namche Bazaar, a distance that's normally covered in two days. And that's on top of a big day yesterday - the 15 kilometre hike from Island Peak Base Camp to Dingboche. Still, there's no choice and, after all, it is downhill all the way. Well, except for the hill up to Tengboche, which we then have to go down the other side to cross the river before going up again to the trail that ridges around the mountains to Namche Bazaar. We're all in high spirits as we set off. It's rather cold but after an hour or so, we're stripping off layers as the sun reaches the valley. The hill up to Tengboche slows us down - god! You'd think we'd be fit and strong by now, wouldn't you but no, put one little hill in our way and we're huffing and puffing our way up it!
After a refreshing cup of hot lemon, we all go to visit the monastery. I leave some rupees and a butterscotch sweet as offerings on the alter. Then we have some lunch before taking to the trail once more. The descent is a steep and twisting one and it seems to take forever to get down to Phunki Tenga. We've dropped about 300m and now have to regain them before reaching Namche. By the time we reach the outskirts of Kyangjuma, I'm really flagging. Those big climbs and descents have really made my leg hurt. Sherpa Phuri takes my pack, and together with Nick, who's also buggered, we make our slow, limping way to Namche. David is the only one behind us. He's accompanied by Pasang and Tengi. Clouds roll up the valley, alternately obscuring and revealing the mountains. We stop and take lots of photos along the way. At one point, a pair of pheasants almost take Nick's head off as they fly out of the shrubbery on the hillside above us and shoot across the trail and down the slope! Mist begins to close in around us and it's nearly 5pm and we're getting concerned it's going to get dark before we reach Namche when suddenly, we're there! Never was there a more welcome sight than that of Namche spread out around its amphitheatre below us. We stumbled down the trail and into town to our lodge. Of course, we had to go up a set of stairs to get to the dining room, but finally we arrived to cheers of welcome from the rest of the group. In truth, I'm only interested in seeing Smithy and finally spot her sitting in the middle of the group. I squeeze in beside her for a very welcome reunion. I'm so glad we're back together, but disappointed to hear that she is no better and that her cough is as bad as ever. Despite that, there's a party mood in the air. The group is complete again and we're almost finished the trip - it's time for a drink!
Our original itinerary gave us tow days to get from Namche to Lukla, but then we had to give up a day so we could camp overnight after going over Cho La, so were looking at having to put in several big days - Dingboche to Namche and Namche to Lukla. Now, because the summit bid was abandoned, we had an extra day back and everyone wanted to spend it in Namche rather than take two days to get to Lukla. Everyone that is, except Smithy and me. Smithy felt she should take the two days rather than push herself and Pasang thought I should go with her, given the condition of my leg, and I agreed wholeheartedly.
So, once again, next morning we left the group to their shopping, showers and emailing, and set off with Sherpas Phuri and Tengi to Phakding. It took ages to get down the Namche hill because of all the traffic coming the other way! Lots and lots of yak trains and porters all heading to the market at Namche. At the lodge at Phakding, the only other trekkers there were 3 Australian blokes on their way to climb Island Peak! So we were able to regale them with our adventures over dinner. The next morning we began our last day of trekking. Smithy was really struggling now and had to walk really slowly. I was feeling really good and strong, so just bounced along the trail ahead, stopping to let Smithy catch up, feed her sweets, give her pep talks before bouncing off again. There was one final steep hill before Lukla and I left Smithy to do it in her own time. At the top of the hill is a gateway into Lukla and I sat there to wait for Smithy, chatting to other trekkers as I did. Finally, Smithy arrived and we hugged, high-5ed and cheered "Finished!" We then walked through town to our lodge which was next to the airstrip. Smithy crashed out in our room and I sat in the garden with a British couple we met in Monjo and kept encountering on the trail. Soon after 1pm, the rest of the group arrived - they must have flown down the trail, doing in 5 hours what had taken Smithy and I eight hours over two days!
That night, we had a party for the porters where tips and gifts were distributed to all 17 porters and 5 sherpas. A final game of 500 was played before we all toddled off to bed. We would be up bright and early next morning for our flight out to Kathmandu. That wind at Island Base Camp had brought heavy cloud cover lower down and flights had been cancelled 3 days in a row. There had been a huge backlog of people trying to leave Lukla. Luckily, flights recommenced the day we walked into Lukla and Pasang was confident we would get a flight out. It dure didn't look likely next morning. Mist blanketed the town and the end of the airstip disappeared into cloud. Three times a plane taxied out onto the airstrip only to return to the apron. Then, still with lots of mist around, no end of the airstrip in sight and surrounding hills hidden in cloud, it took off!
My guess is that the pilots know the drill like the back of their hands. 1-2-3 take off 4-5-6 climb 7-8-9 turn right 10-11-12 climb some more 12-14-15 left around the mountain.....
Our projected take off time slipped past and there were a few long faces beginning to appear. Now that the trip was almost over, we just wanted to get to Kathmandu. Then, finally the siren signalling incoming flights sounded and we were off to the departures terminal. A quick pat-down from security, a brief wait for our plane then we were all trotting out to the apron, passing the debarking passengers on the way, and piling on to the little plane for the 40 minute flight to Kathmandu.
Our Very Big Adventure was almost over. We had a day and a half in Kathmandu during which we did very little apart from lazing around in our hotel room, luxuriating in the joys of on demand showers, ensuite toilets, cricket on the telly and sleepingbagless beds!
We arrived home 2pm on 29 November, having not slept since 8am the previous day, hardly believing it was all over and already dreaming about our next trip.

Everest Exploits Part Six: Island Peak

Smithy's not going to Island Peak Base Camp. She had a terrible terrible night with non-stop coughing and has decided not to go any higher. I can't stay with her this time. I have to go and try to climb the mountain. Smithy's got the option of staying in Dingboche until we come back (in about 3 days time) or to slowly make her way down to Namche Bazaar. Pasang leaves a porter with her - temporarily promoted to Sherpa. We all say our goodbyes and as we exit the lodge grounds, I begin to cry. Warning to Viewers - Do Not Try This At Home! You have no idea how hard it is to trudge up an ice-encrusted laneway, trying to breathe and cry simultaneously at altitude. Tears blur your vision, snot blocks your nose and you have to keep stopping to pant and gasp to get enough air into your lungs. So I had to stop crying and instead, snivelled my way to our lunchstop at Chukkhung. My legs felt leaden, my right thigh actually hurt, my head was aching - bloody bloody period I muttered to myself. But why does my leg hurt so much? Then I remembered the "little" slip I'd taken yesterday on our way to Dingboche. There's a steep downhill section just after the Sherpa memorial ground above Dughla, and my left foot had shot out from under me on some loose gravel. No harm done, I'd thought at the time, brushing the dust off me. But I've pulled the quad in my right thigh and right now every uphill step is killing me. The walk into Base Camp from Chukkhung is quite tough - we gain 1000m in altitude from Dingboche - and I find myself having to take lots of rests to ease the pain in my leg. Finally, Base Camp appears. I add a big white stone to a cairn for Smithy and hobble over the tent that I'll now be sharing with Cathy the Canadian, sit down on a rock and burst into tears. Partly because of sheer exhaustion, partly because of my period mucking up my hormones, but largely because I'm here without Smithy. I spent most of the afternoon quietly weeping into my big fleece jacket whilst sitting in the dining tent. By dinner-time, I've made up my mind. I can barely eat the Sherpa stew that's been made especially for me (everyone else has a meat dish) cos I'm crying too much. I tell Pasang I've gone as far as I can and that I don't want to go to High Camp tomorrow. He understands. We talked for ages on the walk in, so he knows the shape I'm in at the moment. I'll stay at Base Camp and wait until everyone returns from summitting Island Peak.
Next morning, we all have a lesson on climbing on a fixed rope, practising clipping on and off around anchor points, then camp is struck - just my tent, the dining tent and four tents for the porters are left - hugs and handshakes around the group and then they're gone. I'm on my own with Bebe the cook and 12 porters for company. It's sunny but very windy so most of the day is spent in the dining tent reading Himalaya, which I'd borrowed from Anthony who'd borrowed it from Danny, listening to my MP3 player, and drinking coffee. Later in the afternoon, the campsite was visited by a small group of beautiful grey and brown striped birds that look like grouse. I later learn they are Tibetan snow chickens. They cluck and squeak around me as I toss biscuit crumbs for them. Further up the mountain the rest of the group is fantasizing about roasting them!
I'm not expecting the group back at Base Camp until about 2pm the next day, so am flabbergasted when I see Hamish ducking into the dining tent at 8am. I hurry in after him to find out what's going on and the others arrive one by one as we're talking. The summit bid was aborted. The strong wind I was experiencing all night was a hurricane up at High Camp and they spent the whole night holding onto their tents! Wake up time was to be at 2.30am, but Pasang put it off till 3.30, then again to 4.30. Finally, at 5.30am, he called the summit attempt off. The wind was too strong (it was blowing 100kph) and it was far too dangerous. So here they all were back at Base Camp! Lunch is served up at 9am (Lunch? I haven't had breakfast yet!) and I'm sent off to pack up my tent. Come back to find a spoonful of baked beans and some Tibetan bread is all that is left for me. Damn! Before I know it, it's 10am and everyone is off back down the valley. They're all going at a cracking pace and I have to go like the clappers to keep up with them. The wind is howling in our faces. At one point, the terrain is really flat and sandy - just like a beach - and a huge gust of wind came around the hillside and blew a huge cloud of dust at us all. Visibility nil! Coughing and spluttering and all glittering from mica in the dust coating us, we stumble our way towards Chukkhung and then Dingboche, which we arrive at in a record 3 hours!
Smithy's not here. She's on her way to Namche after leaving here yesterday and staying at Tengboche Monastery last night.
Everyone has either a shower or bowl of hot water and we're soon restored to something resembling cleanliness. We were so dusty, it was even crunching between our teeth! Tomorrow, we'll trek down to Namche. We have an extra day up our sleeves again and everyone is dreaming about spending it in Namche Bazaar.

Everest Exploits Part Five: Dingboche Dash

Camp was struck and we set off for what was to be a leisurely stroll to Lobuche. But someone forgot to tell Sherpa Mingma about the leisurely bit - he set off at such a gallop, I soon fell back unable to control my breathing. I was, after all, still recovering from a chest infection. Smithy was further back still - her cough was getting worse each day - so we enjoyed the walk around the ridge and down onto the Khumbu Glacier at our own pace and ended up just 10 or so minutes behind the rest of the group anyway. That night there were 3 games of 500 on the go - great fun!
The plan for the next few days was to trek to Gorek Shep, then hike to Everest Base Camp. The next morning we'd all climb the 5545m Kalar Pattar then hot foot it down to Dingboche, stopping along the way at Lobuche for lunch. Well, Smithy decided not to go. That she would be better off trying to rest and conserve her strength for Island Peak. An excellent idea, but Lobuche not being one of the nicest or interesting places to stay in by one's self, I decided to keep Smithy company. After all, we've both been to Gorek Shep before and climbed Kalar Pattar and neither of us really fancied the walk into EBC....
So next morning, we waved the rest of the group off and settled into a lazy day in Lobuche. We did some washing - which promptly froze in the wind - played Yahtzee, read Empire magazine - lent to us by the lodge owner, watched the clouds come up the valley, drank tea and chatted to other trekkers as they began arriving in the afternoon.
Next morning, we decided on an early start for Dingboche, so with Sherpa Tengi, we set off down the valley. I was feeling a little under the weather, with stomach cramps, because my period had just started - the 4th one in 3 months!!! Not happy! Two and a half hours later, we got into Dingboche just as a heavy mist rolled in. We didn't expect the rest of the group until about 3pm but it was 4.30 before they all turned up with mist frozen in their hair and on their coats! They were all a bit beat, but not too tired for a few games of 500! We'd all got chatting to a British woman who had climbed Island Peak a week or so ago. She said it was the scariest thing she had done, but had a huge sense of achievement. I bought another pair of water/wind proof gloves for a mere 500 Rs (AUS$10) as I was worried that mine weren't big enough to let me wear inners in them. Smithy talked to Pasang about her options and it was decided that she could go to Base Camp and still opt out of the climb if she wasn't up to it. Everyone went to bed feeling really exhilarated about the next few days. We were going to climb a mountain!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Everest Exploits Part Four: Ooh La La

One goal achieved. Onto the next - Cho La (la being Tibetan for 'pass'). We'll be camping just below the approach to the pass. To get there, we have to cross the Ngozumpa Glacier. It takes us over an hour to do this - the glacier is huge and the trail is rough. Oh, and we keep stopping to toss rocks onto the frozen ponds and lakes below us! The glacier creaks and groans around us and every now and again there's a rattle of stones falling into a lake - loosened by the glacier's movement.
Eventually we make it to the tiny settlement of Thagnag...and keep on going. Darn it! I hoped for morning tea. Now it's a seemingly endless slog up the valley towards our campsite. Slowly slowly we trudge up the trail alongside a half-frozen stream. Eventually, I catch a glimpse of a bright purple tent. We're here! We all collapse to the ground in front of our tents, tired and a little gobsmacked at how hard that hike was. That night, dinner is served in each of our tents and we're all tucked up by 6.30 cos it's too dark and cold to do anything else! It's cold cold cold and when we wake up (at 5.30am), there's ice on the inside of the tent - frozen condensation - and the water has frozen in my drink bottle! We're all so cold - I can't feel my toes - that we're desperate to set off for the Cho La as soon as possible. The first hour is pure misery as we slog up the first hill. Thankfully, the sun has reached the crest of the hill when we get there and we spend about 20 minutes thawing out before going down to the valley at the bottom of the Cho La. This is what I hate about trekking in the Himalayas. You sweat blood and tears getting up a bloody hill only to discover you have to go down its other side! All pain and no gain. But I digress....
There's three huge boulder fields to scramble over before reaching the final approach to the pass. These reduced me to tears in 2003 when I crossed the Cho La east to west. This time, I'm more confident boulder hopping and I'm feeling fitter and stronger. Before I know it, there's just the almost vertical slope to the Cho La to go. I find Nick sitting in the snow feeling lousy and munching on a chocolate bar. He's buggered he says. I give us both painkillers for our headaches, Phuri takes Nick's pack as well as mine, and Nick and I continue slowly on our way. Much of the slope is covered in snow, which actually makes it easier as there are footprints to follow. Inch by inch we make our way to the top - and are greeted by cheers from the rest of the group who arrived before us. It's quite a long wait before Smithy and Hamish join us, but then it's time to take photographs and string up prayer flags. We then move off to a snow slope beside the trail for lunch and our second mountaineering lesson - self-arrest.
Lunch is eaten standing up - delicious Tibetan bread, cheese wedges, dried apricots, cashews, Snickers bars, hot lemon drinks.
The snow was too powdery for people to properly slide down, but Pasang demonstrated the art of self-arrest anyway. This involves gripping one's ice axe close to the body, rolling over onto one's front and digging the ice axe into the snow, keeping one's feet in the air, until one comes to a halt. Easy huh! Some people then practised walking tied on a rope whilst the rest of us began to make our way across the snowfield and down the other side of the the Cho La. If we thought the ascent was almost vertical, the descent was terrifyingly straight down - and over huge boulders. I'm still marvelling that in 2003 I managed to go up that side! Then there was a long, winding trek down to the valley bottom. Smithy, by now suffering from a full-blown chest infection of her own, was really beginning to fade and run out of energy. We had perhaps a further 30 minutes of walking to our campsite when Phuri inexplicably took us cross country. We ploughed through shrubbery, scrambled over boulders, plunged into snow, criss crossed creeks and slogged up and down 3 hills before we finally came out above the perfectly good trail we had left behind an hour ago - with the rest of our group gaily trotting along it to our tents.
Smithy and I were not happy campers that night and I shouted my displeasure at poor Pasang! We were a bit warmer thanks to Smithy's bright idea of putting our biggest polarfleeces down under our sleepingbags - no cold seeped through from the ground this time. And next morning enjoyed washie water in a sunwarmed tent - we even managed to strip off completely and say hello to our skin, it was so warm!
After an alfresco breakfast, it was time for mountaineering lesson number 3: walking with crampons. We all laced ourselves into our climbing boots, strapped on our crampons and stumbled over to the slope on which Pasang wanted us to practise going up. Well, that was a complete comedy of errors as we tripped over tussocks, got our crampons caught in grass, tangled our legs up and generally made it up the slope demonstrating absolutely no command of the techniques Pasang had just taught us! We consoled ourselves that it would actually be easier in snow....

Everest Exploits Part Three: Go Go Gokyo

I've been coughing for days now - and nights. I even caused sparks to fly coughing in my sleeping bag! I'm tired and my muscles ache but I'm doing everything I can to get well. Shovelling antibiotics down my throat, sucking Strepsils and Cepacols, drinking hot water, walking with a scarf around my mouth to stop the cold air irritating my throat...
You see, I'm desperate to be well enough to climb Gokyo Ri. This will be my third visit to Gokyo and I've never climbed the 5360m peak! The first time, in 2003, I had already tackled Kala Pattar and not quite reached the top. Took one look at Gokyo Ri and said "Sod that!" Then, in 2004, I had a fever and was too ill to get out of my bed. Smithy made it to the top though and brought back a little rock for me. So I'm determined to get to the top!
We have glorious days of brilliant blue skies and sunshine as we trek from Mon La to Dole to Macchermo and on to Gokyo. At Macchermo we provided some entertainment for trekkers and porters when Pasang and his crew spent a couple of hours fitting crampons to our climbing boots, causing quite a bit of speculation about where we were going! For our part, we were creating our own entertainment with a fluid, ongoing game of 500, gaining new recruits from group members as the trek went on. We ended up with 10 out of 11 members being able to play!
By the time we reached Gokyo, the list of casualties has grown. David's still feeling delicate, Danny is poorly and Peter and Elaine are rather crook too. My cough is starting to abate but Smithy has a suspicious tickle in her throat. Ash throws up overnight and decides not to attempt Gokyo Ri. So, Hamish, Cathy, Nick, Anthony, David, Smithy and I set off with Phuri, one of our Sherpas, for the top of Gokyou Ri.
Now, at first glance, Gokyo Ri looks like no big deal. It's just a 600m "hill" rising up from the lake. Yes indeed, but one's starting point is 4760m above sea level. You're already puffing from the slightest exertion and now you're going to go virtually straight up the side of that "hill", breaking through the 5000m mark along your way! So, the only way to tackle it is slowly, slowly. Which is just what we do. Unfortunately, Smithy drops out - the exertion is putting too much strain on her lungs. But the rest of us forge on up one step at a time - oh except for Hamish Cathy and Phuri, our mountain goats. They virtually skip up the slope. The rest of us puff and pant our way to the top. And as we get higher, Everest looms bigger and bigger on the horizon. The views are fantastic from the top. Gokyo's three lakes look like turquoise jewels, the Ngozumpa Glacier is enormous as it snakes its way down the valley. Everest's massive triangle dominates the skyline. Prayer flags snap in the breeze.
We all spend about an hour taking photographs and having hot lemon drinks and biscuits before heading back down. Before we leave, I take a few minutes to find a couple of little rocks as mementos for Smithy and me. Going down is nearly as tough as going up. The path is steep and slippery and puts a lot of strain on the knees. To my own surprise, I'm the first one down and am congratulated by Ash and Smithy who had come out to meet us all. Huge Brahminy ducks are swimming on the lake as we make our way back to the lodge for a well-earned lunch.
I'm feeling euphoric. I did it! I got to the top of Gokyo Ri! And I did it on my Dad's 70th birthday!
There's one person feeling not so euphoric and that's the Frenchwoman suffering from pressure behind her eyes. We're playing 500 that evening when our Sherpas come in and start moving the furniture around. We think they want to get ready for bed, but No, no no says Phuri. Instead, out comes Peregrine's GAMOW bag and in goes the Frenchwoman. These bags are like mini decompressure chambers and you can use them to stabilise people with severe altitude sickness before sending them down. As the doctors at the Macchermo Rescue Centre had said, once you go in one, your trip is over. Turns out this woman had ascended too fast and only drunk two cups of black tea and a cup of water - the recommended average per day is 3 litres. Her response when Pasang told her that people died from altitude sickness was "Oh, does that really happen?" Anyway, she spent about 4 hours in the bag and was well enough to walk down to Macchermo where we hope she got a severe tongue lashing from the doctors. She was damned lucky we were still in Gokyo as our team was the only one with a GAMOW bag. She would have been in serious trouble without us and could potentially have died.

Everest Exploits Part Two: How To Get Out Of A Crevasse

We had two nights in Namche Bazaar for rest and acclimatisation. Everyone else went acclimatising to Kunde and Kumjung - I rested. I did start out on the walk but it was too much for my lungs and I turned back, spending the afternoon reading in the lodge diningroom and chatting to some English blokes who were on their way down after trying to climb Pumori and Island Peak.
The nights are getting quite cool now and there's quite a competition to get close enough to the yak dung fuelled stove to feel its warmth. We all enjoy watching the scrimmage between Cathy and all the Sherpas who circle the stove thereby blocking the heat from everyone else in the room. It's only 3 days into the trip, but Cathy's getting desperate about her inability to get warm. She's already wearing 5 layers and her down jacket and is fretting about how she'll fare higher up. Have I mentioned Cathy is Canadian? Yep, the one person from the land of winter is cold! The rest of us, of course, are keeping warm falling about laughing at, er with, her.
Oh and where do the rest of us come from? There's two New Zealanders (although one is originally from England) and nine Australians (although one is originally from England).
So, rested and a bit more acclimatized, we head off to Mon La - stopping first at Kyanjungma for lunch and a lesson in crevasse self-rescue. There's an awesome array of equipment laid out at the foot of a twenty-foot high boulder and we all look on blankly as Pasang talks us through the process of climbing out of a crevasse. I'm not sure how it happens, but I get to have the first go at climbing up the boulder - our pretend crevasse. I strap on the harness and it immediately becomes apparent to all four women that peeing on summit day is going to be right out of the question! I'm given one jumar that is clipped into my harness, then onto the rope dangling from the top of the boulder - sorry, crevasse. This is my hand jumar. Another jumar with two short ropes ending in loops - think stirrups - is clipped onto the climbing rope below the hand jumar. This is my leg jumar.
Pasang then tells us the first rule of crossing a glacier: Try not to fall.
However, if we must fall into a crevasse we are to call out "Falling!" Sorry, Pasang. I'm sure my first instinct as I feel the earth opening beneath my feet will be to yell "F******!" or "Arrrrrrrrrgh!" not a calm, stiff upper lip "Falling!"
Anyway, my rope mates will then drive their ice axes into the ground and wrap the climbing rope around it to halt my fall. After ascertaining that I'm conscious and capable of rescuing myself, a leg jumar is then lowered down to me.
Now, bear in mind that in a real situation I'll be wearing about 100 layers of clothing, waterproof coat and trousers, big warm gloves, climbing boots and crampons and I'll have to clip the leg jumar onto the rope and get each foot into one of the rope loops whilst spinning at the end of a rope and with fear and adrenalin running through my veins. A cinch!
This is how I get myself out of a crevasse:
1. Slide the hand jumar up to take up all the slack on the rope connecting it to my harness.
2. Sit all my weight on my harness.
3. Bend the knees and slide the leg jumar up as far as it will go.
4. Haul myself to a standing position in the stirrups.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 until I reach the top of the crevasse
To much applause, I regained the ground and watched as everyone in the group had a go. Of course, we're all convinced that if ever one of us did fall into a crevasse, Pasang and all the Sherpas would simply haul us out! But, it was fun learning a mountaineering skill.
By the time we were all done, we were freezing and galloped into the lodge for a welcome bowl of hot soup and fried pasta for lunch. We then shouldered our packs and set off for Mon La. We got to see Himalayan tahr along the way and the weather tried really really hard to snow on us, thrilling Nick who has never seen snow fall.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Everest Exploits Part One: Getting There

So we waved goodbye to Ms Libra and Bluey on Saturday 4 November and relocated ourselves to the very swanky Shangri-La Hotel to begin Phase 3 of our Very Big Adventure - Island Peak. We had a group briefing that afternoon, which was our first meeting with the 10 other people on the trek - and how intimidating half of them looked too! Big brawny blokes they were! And, oh phew, 2 other women. We got to try on climbing boots - tres tres chic - and had our gloves, packs and sunglasses inspected by our trek leader, Pasang Sherpa, who has climbed Everest! Yes indeedy, our very own celebrity!
Monday we all got up at the crack of dawn to have breakfast then head out to the airport for the 40 minute flight to Lukla, the gateway to the Everest region. Now, the planes they use are little 16-seater Twin Otters in which the seatbacks fold down whenever not in use, or when gripped in terror by the person behind. So imagine this....12 trekkers wearing their ever so flexible and dainty plastic climbing boots (there's baggage weight restrictions, don't you know), 6 of whom are bloody big blokes all squeezing onto this wee wee plane and being greeting by an airhostess offering cotton wool and a boiled lollie - Yeti Airlines really raises the bar when it comes to inflight service. For most of the flight's duration, there was a complacent hum of conversation in the cabin (Hamish even managed to fall asleep - "gotta get it when you can" - despite the people clambering over him to get their first views of Everest) but this soon turned to sounds of fear and consternation when people caught sight of the "airstrip" at Lukla. Some quotes:
"You're f***** kidding! We're landing on that?"
"Jesus christ. No way!"
"Oh shit. I'm gonna die."
and then as we landed:
"F**** awesome man"
The airstrip at Lukla is a STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) and slopes upwards towards a bloody big rock wall (a braking aid, apparently). From the air, it appears about the size of a bandaid, with a sheer drop at one end, a mountain at the other and lots of things to crash into - like other mountains, gorges, lodges and a river - if the pilot misses the bandaid. Suffice to say, we landed safely and were quickly bundled off to our lunchtime lodge whilst Pasang organised porters, loads and equipment. Unfortunately, we had to effect a smart evacuation when Robert rather suddenly vomited all over the floor! Ooops. Sadly, Robert never finished the trip. He struggled to Namche Bazaar ( a two day hike away from Lukla) where he had a rather serious diabetic seizure and nearly died. Kind of made my chest infection and David's D&V (Diarrhoea & Vomiting) pale in comparison. So then we were eleven......

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Pokhara pleasures and perils

Almost as soon as we arrived at the Fairmount Hotel at Pokhara, we went in to lunch where we struck up a conversation with an elderly American woman at the next table. She had just returned from her first and only day on trek, having enormous difficulty negotiating the big steps on the trail! She planned to spend the next two weeks whilst she waited for her trek group to finish their trek just pottering around Pokhara going on day trips more suited to her "almost 80 year old body."
Later in the afternoon when Smithy and I were returning to the hotel after a huge spending spree, I spotted the "American Lady" walking down the street with a man, but didn't wave or call out as they were deep in conversation. Minutes later, there was a huge cry of horror, and hundreds of people rushed to the intersection behind us. It seemed that someone had been hit. Smithy decided to stay out of it, despite her nursing expertise, because there were just too many people to battle through. We were looking through some greeting cards when the shopowner's sons came running back from the melee confirming that someone had been hit and that it looked as if their leg was broken and they had gashes on their face and hands. We continued on our way and I said to Smithy " I hope it's not the American Lady." I don't know what made me say that, just the coincidence of seeing her in the street just before the accident, I guess.
Half an hour later we had to go back down the street cos we'd forgotten to buy coffee. There was still a huge crowd outside the supermarket and 3 ambulances! At least whoever the poor bugger was, they were getting medical attention. It was only at dinnertime that we discovered, to our horror, that it was the American Lady who had been hit! She had been hit, knocked down and run over by a vehicle that had swerved to avoid her companion and hit her instead. The poor thing had a broken leg and pelvis. Luckily, an Israeli doctor had been right on the scene, so Margaret, as we found was her name, was well looked after until the ambulances came. The driver's company was really good, paying for the ambulances and sending a liaison person to the hospital to look after all her needs and one to the hotel to help organise her evacuation to Kathmandu and later the States. We never did hear the final outcome for Margaret as we left Pokhara on 1 November, but plans were underway to fly her to Kathmandu and her son was on his way from the States. We hope she's going to be alright.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Smithy and I visited the three children we sponsor through World Vision on 31 October. After a bit of driving around in circles whilst the taxi driver tried to find the WV office, we were treated to a slideshow presentation of the office's work and a tour of the building before taking another taxi out to Begnas Tal, a lovely lake, to meet the children and their mothers. Smithy's two children, S.B. and P.G. arrived shortly after we did and gave us lots of mandarins and some flowers. Smithy gave them each a bag of presents - colouring books, pencils, soft toy and a T-shirt - and we all stood around grinning shyly at each other. We couldn't get a word out of the kids! I finally had the bright idea of bringing out my mini album of family photos and showing them to the mums and this broke the ice and we were able to "chat" with the kids and their mums. I handed out slices of rather melted birthday cake and we all took photos whilst waiting for my boy A.B. to arrive. It turned out he had come, but since no-one was there, was taken back to the fields by his parents. A couple of WV staff were sent off to get him back and we were just making alternative plans to meet him later at the office when he arrived with his mother, sister and grandmother. More shy smiles and photographs and then we got the frisbees out and had a great time playing together. All too soon it was time to leave and amid repeated questions from the kids and mums about when we would come back to Nepal and visit again, we made our goodbyes and caught the taxi back to the WV office.
Even though it was a little awkward to begin with and communication was difficult with our very limited Nepali, it was an absolute buzz to meet "our" kids. We love getting their letters and to see them in the flesh, looking healthy and happy, and to know that we are in a small way helping to improve their lives and that of their community is humbling but uplifting.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Annapurna Adventures

The first few days of the trek are hot and sweaty as we pant and groan our way up the trail. Donkey trains tinkle their way past us in both directions, butterflies flit by, waterfalls roar, terraced rice fields zigzag dizzyingly up the hills, suspension bridges sway and bounce beneath us and mountains appear majestically above us - big, white and surreal against the blue sky. Everything is green and lush after the monsoons, and still hot. We look forward to reaching cooler altitudes once we're past Tal.
The weather does get cooler - and so do the showers. Smithy and I have decided not to bother with the cold trickles that pass for showers in these parts, but Bluey and Ms Libra can't quite bring themselves to lose this particular facet of 'civilisation'. I admire their stoicism but stick with the bowl of 'washie water' I get every now and again.
Faces are becoming familiar on the trail now and we hail people as if they are old friends as we cross paths in the villages each night. There's the "Polish people", as we dub them. They seem to always end up staying in the same lodge as us. We think they're a family - Mum and Dad and adult daughter and husband - but find out much later they are two unrelated couples and that Victek (the older man) was Tomasc's professor at university. There's also the "Two-Stick Woman" travelling by herself with a porter and a guide. She walks really really slowly but still ends up in the same village as everyone else at the end of the day. We lose track of her on the walk from Tal to Chame - that's a huge day and many people stop instead at Danaque. Which is where we surmise "Scaredy-cat" and her husband end up. We first thought she was vision-impaired because of the way he held her arm all the time and the slow slow pace they went at. Nope, she's just scared stiff of going up, going down and crossing suspension bridges - she actually came to a complete halt halfway across one and screamed because it was swaying from the 25 porters, trekkers and villagers behind her. Give them credit though, they did make it to Manang and probably went over Thorung La - since we sidetrekked into Tilicho Lake, we lost track of them.
By the time we reached Manang, Ms Libra was suffering from a raging toothache and was not well at all. She saw the local doctor, who turned out to be the cousin of one of our guides and the brother of the other (small world!) and was given a fist full of antibiotics and painkillers and told to stay away from hot, cold and sweet foods and drinks. We all prayed she would be well enough to enjoy her birthday two days hence.
Whilst in Manang, we visited a couple of old old monasteries. The one in Braga is about 600 years old and full of ancient statues. Some ancient locals were beginning a prayer session when we visited and we received a blessed string from the not so ancient monk. Smithy and I were really happy to see this monastery, as in 2004, we staggered up the 200 steep steps to find the place locked up! The four of us also visited the 400 year old Karke Monastery, with its original wall paintings and massive, ancient wooden pillars. The very young monk - from Bhutan - gave us another blessed string to wear around our necks and some blessed pills to eat.
From Manang, most people head up the trail towards Thorung La - the 5416m pass. We headed instead out west to Khangsar to begin our sidetrek to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world at around 5000m. Ms Libra and Bluey had already decided they were not going to attempt the walk into Tilicho Base Camp as they did not feel confident enough to negotiate the tricky trails and Ms Libra still wasn't feeling the best. They would stay at Khangsar and meet us on our way out to Yak Kharka.
We reached Khangsar on 18 October - Ms Libra's birthday. Unbeknownst to her, the box young Bukta ("Buddha") was carrying contained her birthday cake. It had been ordered in Braga and Kuman had sent young Dawa, the porter, back down to Braga that morning to collect it. Kuman was so excited about it being Ms Libra's birthday, we barely finished lunch before he brought the cake out. It was delicious! A big, chocolate mud cake beautifully decorated. There was so much, even after handing slices out to all the lodge staff, that we ended up giving a good third of it to the "Polish people". They had been inspired by our talk of Tilicho Lake and after coming up to Khangsar for an acclimatisation walk, had decided to go on to Tilicho! They sang a very nice Polish song to Ms Libra, wishing her a long life and ate the cake before dinner since it looked so good.
Next day we woke up to find it had snowed! Everything was covered in a magical blanket of white. Smithy, Kuman and I walked through a winter wonderland to Tilicho Base Camp. An utterly fantastic walk through snow-covered juniper bushes, fantastical rock formations, and a starkly beautiful landslip area to the one and only lodge that comprises Tilicho Base Camp. There were a lot of people there and we had a very social time chatting away the afternoon. The Polish people turned up after initially deciding the weather looked too dodgy to come. We shared our trekking bread and vegemite with them - which, to our astonishment, they really liked!!!
It snowed again overnight but had stopped by the time we stumbled out of our dormitory beds at 5am. Despite the gloomy weather we set off for the lake which was a good 2-3 hours walk away. It began snowing again and got heavier and heavier until it was blowing in our faces and we couldn't see the hills a mere 100 metres across the valley. Concerned about the track back and knowing there'd be no visibility at the lake, we turned back. There were a few scary moments when both Smithy and I slipped and fell on the icy trail, but we made it safely back to Base Camp to find everyone evacuating out! We later found out that all 45 people who set out for the lake had to turn back. After a quick hot drink, we headed back along the trail to our rendevous with Ms Libra and Bluey at the one-lodge place called Sheree. We got there just after 11am, puzzled to find they had not arrived. They still hadn't arrived when we'd finished our lunch an hour later. Kuman had been hoping we would walk onto Yak Kharka, thus saving a day, in the afternoon, but we couldn't do that until the others arrived. He sent our porter, Pasang, down to Khangsar to find out what was happening. Having to wait for his return scotched all plans for moving up to Yak Kharka and Smithy and I enjoyed sitting in the sun, chatting to a couple of young women and watching the mountains. Pasang reappeared a couple of hours later clutching a red envelope. It was a letter from Ms Libra and Bluey and it spelled doom. Ms Libra had altitude sickness - just to add to her woes - and they needed to descend. Kuman went down with Pasang (Dawa had meanwhile arrived with our kitbag) to organise the descent and Smithy and I were left alone in the silence of Sheree (all the other trekkers had moved up to Yak Kharka). It was magnificent! Not a sound. No babble of voices. Nothing but the wind. We exulted in the peace and tranquility, watching Gangapurna, Khangsar Kang, the Grand Barrier and Annapurna III emerge from the clouds.
So, the new plan was that Ms Libra and Bluey would trek back to Besi Sahar and catch the bus to Pokhara where we would meet them after having gone over Thorung La and down the Kali Gandaki valley.
Well, you know what happens to plans.....Smithy and I moved up to Yak Kharka next day - a whole day behind all those people we'd befriended - and I got sick with a stomach bug (probably picked up at the less than sanitary Tilicho Base Camp). That and the continuing snow was enough to convince us to also head back down instead of going over the pass. Instead of moving up to Thorung Phedi, we went back to Manang and next day put in an eight hour effort to get to Chame to catch up with Ms Libra and Bluey. Along the way, we had more magical moments walking through snow covered pine forests.
Reunited in Chame, we all continued our hike down to Besi Sahar. And had a great time. Saw things we hadn't seen on the way up, staying in different villages, meeting new people, exulting in the ease in which we descended hills that only a week or so earlier had sweated and grunted our way up and enjoying hot showers and cold beers!
Spent my birthday on 30 Oct travelling on another local bus from Besi Sahar to Pokhara. Treated myself to a birthday pizza that night and yes, I got a cake too! A lovely coffee cake that again, was too much for us all and so I took it the following day to share with the three children Smithy and I sponsor through World Vision....but that's another post!

The wheels on the bus go round and round...

October 11: We leave Kathmandu today to start our Annapurna Circuit trek. The alarm goes off at 5.30am. Ms Libra and Bluey join us in our room for breakfast of danishes and coffee, then it's off to the bus station to catch the 'local' bus to Besi Sahar. To begin with, our bus is only half full and the only other westerners are a French couple sitting across the aisle. There are two types of buses in Nepal - local and tourist - and the only difference is that the tourist buses don't pick anyone up en route. As the hours went by, the empty seats filled up. Women sat on cane stools in the aisle. Men hung on to the overhead rails. A kitten meowed from under the sari of the old lady down the back. The old lady sitting in the aisle next to me threw up. The baby two stools back threw up as well. So did the old lady with the kitten. I nearly threw up out the window (I'm what's known as a sympathic vomiter - I'll erk up if you do!) Two people sat on my armrest. I held umbrellas and handbags and squeezed a little boy into the space between my knees and the partition separating my seat from the front steps. A teenaged girl hangs onto the rail above me and snaps chewing gum in my ear - thankfully not for too long as we finally arrive in Besi Sahar. We have an hour to wait until the bus leaves again for Khudi - 9 kilometres further up the 'road'. Last time Smithy and I did this trek, Besi Sahar was the end of the road and we passed buses bogged in the ruts of the track leading to Khudi.
The bus reappears and we saunter over to it - only to be bowled over by the 3oo people who have materialised out of nowhere and who are now fighting tooth and nail to get onto 'our' bus. I scramble over the back of a woman trying to claim precedence since she has a child, and claw my way onto the bus where Smithy is trying to eject another woman from my seat. Two westerners are in Bluey and Ms Libra's seats but Bluey manages to move them by the simple expediency of pointing out that the water bottles they are sitting on belong to her. The bus moves off with 20 people still clinging to the doors and we watch in horror as we pass Ms Libra and our guide, Kuman, still standing by the roadside! Stop the bus! We haul them up the steps and continue on the bumpy ride to Khudi. I now have 3 people sitting on my armrest, two balanced on the aforementioned partition, and one on my lap. Smithy says I'm the lucky one cos at least I can't see out the window and down the vertical gorge that the bus lurches towards everytime it hits a pothole.
There's more madness at Khudi as every porter in Nepal descends on the bus and its baggage. Kuman beats them off with a stick and after a few short minutes in which we put on our boots and daypacks, we're off for a 45 minute walk to Bhulebule and our first night's lodgings. Ah, it's good to be walking and to leave the mayhem of the city behind us. Goodbye traffic. Goodbye mobile phones. Goodbye tooting horns. Goodbye hawkers. Goodbye telly. Goodbye hot showers.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

O frabjous day!

Callooh! Callay! We got our visas yesterday! It only took 3 hours and a small monetary incentive (suggested by them, not us) but we now have valid visas until 22 November. We will, of course, have to extend them cos we won't be finished our Island Peak expedition until 26 November and fly home on 30 November but but but we are now legal!
Ms Libra and Bluey arrived on Thursday. Smithy and I went out to the airport with our guide Kuman to meet them. We were there for a very long time and met all sorts of other people we knew, as well as a famous Tibetan Buddhist nun, Ani Choeling Drolma, who is a fantastic singer - I have one of her CDs, and bought her latest just the other day - before Ms Libra and Bluey finally made their appearance - their luggage was virtually the last to be unloaded...
So, we've had a busy few days sightseeing. We all went off to Boudhnath Stupa on Saturday and were just in time to see the stupa being re-decorated with new flags and bunting and new lotus leaf patterns in saffron being reapplied to the stupa itself. After a fascinating hour or so visiting monasteries and watching the locals we headed out to Kopan monastery and nunnery. The monastery was a hive of activity. It seems to be a popular place for Nepalis to visit. Being that it was Brothers and Sisters day of Dashain, alot of people would have been visiting their monk brothers. In contrast, the nunnery was absolutely deserted and someone had to go looking for the keys to open the assembly hall for us. As it was getting on in afternoon, we headed back down the road to Boudhnath, or so we thought. Managed to get ourselves well and truly lost in the winding streets of some villages. Could not see Boudhnath Stupa anywhere (and it's a bloody great big structure) so could not get our bearings. After passing the same intersection for the second time, we threw in the towel and negotiated with a taxi driver to take us back to Thamel for 250 RPs (approx $5.00) who then promptly got lost himself! Finally arrived back at our hotel well satisfied with the day's adventures.
We all head off for our Annapurna Circuit on 11 October, so this is the last post for a few weeks. Happy trails!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pokhara Pleasures

So we are back in Kathmandu after 5 days in Pokhara. We originally planned the Pokhara trip with the intention of visiting the children we sponsor through World Vision. Even extended the trip by a day to facilitate such visit as our sojourn included a weekend and the WV office would be shut. However, two days before we flew out of Australia we got a phonecall from WV's Melbourne office saying the visit couldn't go ahead cos the national holiday Dasain was going to be on 28 Sept - 8 Oct and everything would be closed. Could we change the dates of our visit? Well, no we could not. We could though stay an extra day in Pokhara at the end of our Annapurna trek and visit the children then. Done, sorted but it still left us with 5 days in Pokhara. Ke garne ke garne as they say in Nepalese - what to do what to do?
Well, there's Fewa Lake and we spent a lovely hour being rowed around it, watching the clumps of hyacinth floating past and the boatloads of people travelling to and from the little temple on the little island in the middle of the lake for festival blessings. As I mentioned, Dasain is a 10-day festival, and it was good fun being amongst everyone as they all dressed up in their finest (especially the women), visited each other and sported huge tikas on their foreheads and bunches of rice stalks behind their ears. Lots of swings and big clunky wooden ferris wheels are erected at Dasain and we discovered that it is really good luck to leave the ground for even a few seconds during Dasain. Well, we managed to dispense with the need for a swing altogether as at one point during the arduous bus journey to Pokhara (see last post) we hit a pothole that sent us completely airborne from our seats! There's only one part of Dasain that is a little hard to take and that is the wholesale sacrifice of goats. The family next door to our hotel had a cute little black goat tied up in the garden for all of Saturday and Sunday. Then late Sunday afternoon it was led inside and we never heard from it again.....
We went walking a couple of days - first to Devi's Falls - a waterfall that falls 100m into a hole in the ground. Quite amazing. It was an extremely hot day but we had a nice time walking through rice fields on our way there. We then called into a Tibetan refugee village and chatted with one lovely lady for a bit before heading off to find the refugee village we were really looking for. When a taxi driver confessed he didn't know where it was but would charge us 300 rupees to take us there, we gave the whole exercise up for the day.
One of the things we did want to do in Pokhara was go for an ultra-light flight over the mountains a la Michael Palin. But, except for dawn of our very first day there, clouds covered the mountains every day and we weren't (or rather Smithy wasn't, since this was going to be an early birthday present to me) going to fork out US$200 each for a bird's eye view of the lake and not much else. We also didn't get up to the Peace Stupa, which sat up on a ridge tantalizing us with its gleaming white dome. The hot hot weather made the slog up the hill most unattractive, with the same lack of mountain views that would have made such an effort really worthwhile. Instead, we went for another row on the lake - much more relaxing! We also poked around alot of shops, bought quite a few gifts - and no, we're not telling you what we bought! - drank lots of lassis and lemon sodas, got rained on everytime we went out for dinner and generally did a lot of nothing at all! Just as planned as a reward for Tibet and early reward for Annapurna Circuit.
We're off to the airport now after a fruitless wait at the Dept of Immigration - got there at 9.30 to find it opened at 10am. Then at 10.10 a lovely Pom came along and told us it wouldn't open til 11am cos of the holidays, so we are still visaless! Anyway, Ms Libra and Bluey should be arriving in the next hour and we're really excited about seeing them. We love our own company, and enjoy striking up conversations with complete strangers, but it's going to be a real buzz having them here.
Oh, and we scored an invitation to an art show whilst waiting for the visa office to open, so it wasn't a complete waste of time!